On the surface of things, Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious seems about as retrograde as it gets. Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) is the titular “notorious” one — notorious, that is, for her history of sexual looseness. Never mind that she and secret agent Devlin (Cary Grant) fall in love. In fact, the film’s central problem is her sexual past — will it keep them apart?

A hoary tale? Yes. So how does this film manage to be so perfect?

Dev has pursued Alicia for professional reasons: because her father was a prominent Nazi, tried and imprisoned for his crimes. Knowing that she rejects her father’s beliefs, Dev sees her — at first, anyway — as a perfect potential agent to rout out other Nazis.

But when they head down to Rio to wait for their assignment, the intervening weeks allow them to spend a lot of time together. Sure as the sun will rise, they fall for one another. In the sun-baked Brazilian landscape, they enjoy a blissful honeymoon-like affair. Alicia is uninhibited with her expressions of love.

No one who has ever watched their kissing scene at the telephone will forget it — a scene for which Hitchcock had to walk a fine line. Hollywood’s Hays Code censors stipulated that no onscreen kiss be longer than 3 seconds, so the director had them break their kisses into brief bursts but ultimately choreographed a 3+ minute long take of these two perfectly beautiful human beings embracing, kissing sporadically, nuzzling one another’s necks, murmuring about the evening they’ll spend together. It’s spectacularly sexy, showing yet again the futility of rules seeking to delimit sex onscreen. Just look at how she touches his earlobe, and try to deny this truth.

This scene also introduces a maddening conundrum: Alicia’s open-hearted professions of love vs. Devlin’s restraint. He won’t tell her he loves her. It doesn’t stop her from going all in — but her love and his closed mouth on the subject becomes a barrier in their affair. She’s also open about her prior personal misery, which often led her to drink to excess. But she feels different now, capable of change. Dev listens to her optimism and looks into her glowing face, but remains devastatingly silent.

He gets worse when they finally learn of Alicia’s first assignment as an agent: to flirt with and gain access to the inner circle of a local Nazi transplant, Alex (Claude Rains). Realizing that the CIA wants her because of her loose sexual past makes both of them stop short. Alicia believes she has changed; should she refuse? Does Dev’s refusal to admit he loves her indicate that their relationship is going nowhere? Why won’t he beg her not to participate? Given her disappointments in him, she reluctantly agrees to go undercover, and their relationship comes to a painful halt. Get it? Because he won’t allow that she might have been changed by her love for him, she returns to her old ways of sleeping around and drinking. It’s a classic vicious circle.

So why do I find this film so fresh?

Because I find it impossible to believe Hitchcock’s real goal was to make a problem out of Bergman’s sexuality. Far from it. No one can watch her onscreen — that absolutely guileless woman, so open about her feelings for Dev — and find her problematic. Instead, it’s the shadowy, conflicted Devlin who appears as the real problem. When he meets with his CIA superiors, he makes it clear how troubled he is by their use of her, their assessment of her character. We know early on that he loves her; why can’t he tell her?

Dev’s inability to express his true feelings to her ultimately constitutes a betrayal of their love, especially when the Nazi, smitten as expected with the beautiful and vivacious Alicia, asks her to marry him. Watching Ingrid Bergman’s face register that betrayal is akin to watching her two years earlier in Gaslight (1944) as the young wife driven mad as a result of her husband’s machinations. Her face conveys hurt, lust, and love equally with such transparency that it breaks your heart.

Still, Devlin’s crippled emotions forward the plot usefully into a terrific tale. Equal parts domestic drama (how can she live with Alex and his sinister mother?), thwarted love story (will Dev allow himself to love Alicia again?), and political thriller (just what are Alex and his Nazi cronies up to, anyway?), Notorious never limits itself to any single genre boundary. Watching Alicia and Devlin finagle to get him into Alex’s mysteriously locked wine cellar is riveting on all three levels.

Even more thrilling is what happens when Alex discovers his wife’s perfidy — and what he does about it. The Hitchcock-y second half of the film is so compelling not just because we’re so worried about Alicia, and not just because it’s filmed with such precision and drama, but because Dev must finally make a choice.

That’s why this film still feels so fresh, why it never feels like an outdated, retrograde tale about the importance of female chastity: the real story isn’t about her notoriety, but about Devlin’s inability to be honest with her and with himself. Read this way, the film looks far more subversive of gender and sexual norms of the time.

Would I go so far as to say it’s radically dismissive of those retrograde views about female sexuality? Well, no. It still propels Alicia toward rehabilitation from her old life into a happy monogamous relationship. It’s still titled Notorious, for heaven’s sake. But let’s not be small. This film imagines a happy future for a woman with a rich and varied sexual history, and criticizes a man for refusing to believe in such a thing.

And oh, this film couldn’t be any tighter, or feature three more compelling leads in Bergman, Grant, and Rains. Maybe I need to watch it again right now.

 

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Sense and nonsense

4 April 2010

When Liz Lemon decides to adopt a child in “30 Rock,” she radically cleans up her apartment to impress the adoption people — even to the point of getting “rid of all my Colin Firth movies in case they consider them erotica,” as she tells Jack Donaghy.  (Jack nods knowingly, “That man can wear a sweater.”)

Erotica indeed.  There are few guiltier girlie pleasures than a great kiss in a great love story.  The kiss in the first “Twilight” film has been viewed millions of times on YouTube; even semi-cult favorites like the end of BBC’s “North and South” have hundreds of thousands of hits.  One can find dreamy montage videos of love scenes posted by fans of virtually any show — from “True Blood” to “Queer as Folk,” “Bride and Prejudice,” “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” and virtually anything with George Clooney.

But to be provocative, I’m willing to argue that 1) George Clooney has a long career of making films in which the attraction between characters doesn’t quite make sense, and 2) fans have a long history of accepting slightly nonsensical love stories because the kisses are so good, the stars are so pretty to look at, and because we want to believe that love and passion are somehow nonsensical.  I think we should pause to fully appreciate those love stories that make sense.

Take, for example, one of the best Clooney films: “Out of Sight,” with the oh-so-perfect Jennifer Lopez (oh Jen, how far you’ve fallen since 1998).  Stuffed together into the trunk of her car as Clooney escapes from prison and J-Lo waits for a chance to arrest him, they have an improbable conversation about movies: “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Network.”  Most of this scene permits Clooney to demonstrate his skills in hamming it up.  But there’s suddenly a moment when she takes the conversation seriously as they talk about Redford and Dunaway in “Three Days of the Condor.”  “I never thought it made sense,” Lopez says, turning to Clooney. “You know, the way they got together so quick. I mean, romantically.”  (Ahem: she’s right.)  It’s brilliant:  that very line is the shortcut that allows “Out of Sight” to get Clooney and Lopez together far more quickly than makes any kind of sense.  It jump-starts their mutual attraction; they’re both so gorgeous that dream sequences must suffice till we see their characters finally undress for real.

The movies are full of love stories that simply pair up our beautiful leading men and women as speedily as possible.  But c’mon, people, we can do better.  Taking a quick look at great kissing scenes in the history of film, we quickly see that it doesn’t make sense that Greta Garbo falls in love with ridiculous Melvyn Douglas in “Ninotchka,” Ingrid Bergman with Cary Grant in “Notorious,” or Helena Bonham Carter with Julian Sands in “Room With a View.”  Pleasurable, yes; but baffling in the light of day.  So here’s my list-in-progress of love stories that are so gratifying because they make sense:

  1. Pride and Prejudice.  Apologies for the obvious, but Colin Firth has a full six hours to cease being horrible, pine gratifyingly for Jennifer Ehle, and prove he’s worthy of her; Ehle learns some humility and that you can’t always tell a book by its cover.  Accept no lame Keira Knightley substitutes.
  2. Before Sunset — and considering my distaste for Ethan Hawke, this love story’s got to be good.  If the talkiness and the awkwardness of “Before Sunrise” somehow managed to work on you ten years earlier, it’s downright magical with the wary older versions of Hawke and Julie Delpy.
  3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Clementine and Joel, perfectly flawed characters whose imperfect brains are bound up with each other despite those last few months (and brainwashing).
  4. LA Confidential.  Russell Crowe’s Bud White wears his heart on his sleeve such that Kim Basinger sets aside her Veronica Lake persona to show him the real Lynn Bracken.
  5. Brokeback Mountain.  Again, apologies for the cliché, but the lovely contrast of Jake Gyllenhaal’s eager personability with Heath Ledger’s tragic, laconic Ennis del Mar has to be one of the only opposites-attract stories that makes sense to me. 

There’s got to be more. Tell me.